Cafe Medici founder cooks up a dream

A DREAM LIFE: Chef Jo Crabb gets the best of both worlds.
A DREAM LIFE: Chef Jo Crabb gets the best of both worlds.

The setting for Jo Crabb's French cooking class is perfect. Cookbooks are crammed on the shelf in the kitchen nestled among Martinborough's grapevines - Julia Child, volumes one and two, Al Brown's Stoked and Go Fish, and tomes on French dishes, Spanish tapas and medieval fare. Paintings of grapes hang on the walls above. An old Sharp microwave that looks as though it hasn't been used much sits on one shelf, near a huge metal cake mixer and a 5 kilogram bag of flour.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, a friend and I sit at a long kitchen table in this setting, attending the Martinborough chef's Careme cooking class. After winding our way over the Rimutaka hills to Martinborough, we meet our teacher and the other 10 attendees - all bar one are women - and watch and help Crabb cook our French lunch.

The Martinborough chef who founded the well-known local eatery Cafe Medici really is living the dream, spending a few months in her French country house and the rest of the year in Martinborough, teaching cooking classes in a stunning setting at Palliser Estate vineyard.

MONTJAUX MAGIC: Jo Crabb spends months here each year.
MONTJAUX MAGIC: Jo Crabb spends months here each year.

Almost a decade ago, Crabb and her partner, Stephen Allwood, an artist, decided to walk their "idle talk" and buy a French stone house in the small southern village of Montjaux, where they spend a few months a year as a base to explore the rest of the country and immerse themselves in all things French.

Crabb has served a few meals to get there, though. Trained as an economist before she decided her real passion was at the stove, she ran Cafe Medici for 11 years before she left to teach others to cook. She has recently published a memoir, My Two Heavens, about her dream life, which contains recipes inspired by her travels and her experiences as a chef, businesswoman and traveller. At her cooking school, Careme, she teaches classes that indulge her passion for French food, along with other cuisines of the places she has visited in her life, such as the Maghreb, India, and Marrakech.

She and Allwood first visited France in the mid-1980s, and have returned many times over the years. In her book, she writes: "We love French food, which is varied, nuanced and full of surprises - our first taste of brioche suisse was a sensual pleasure that neither of us have ever forgotten. We've never found an answer to the question, ‘Why not France?' . . . Everyone has their dream. Everyone says, ‘Wouldn't it be lovely if . . .? One day I'd like to . . .' The difference is that Stephen and I do the things we dream about. We travelled the world, we started a cafe, we founded a cooking school, we bought a house in France."

In France, Crabb doesn't work, but she does cook. When they're in Martinborough, you'll find Allwood making their meals in their home kitchen. In France, she doesn't run cooking classes either. "I do research, and I eat and I try out French ingredients for things too."

The secrets of her double, charmed life are shared with the class as we take turns cutting up onions, spooning souffle into bowls, and plopping chopped tomato on the top of French bread that's turned into bruschetta. As we watch her making pate out of duck liver, the smell of which wafts through the kitchen "like dog food", causing some of us to hold our noses, she shares a few kitchen morsels, like "confidence is important and I'm not short of confidence".

Crabb bases a lot of her classes on watching her sisters cook, as when they do basic things wrong it helps her understand how those in her class feel, although she stresses she is kind too. She named her cooking school after the chef Careme, who was born in 1783, got his first job in a kitchen at the age of 9 and is now regarded as the first French celebrity chef.

The smell of garlic wafts from the oven, as she shares her culinary knowledge with the class. Pate should be eaten on the day it's made.

If you're buying knives, go for German ones - the Germans are the masters of knives. "I use my knife a lot. It's my most important gadget and this one is 16 to 18 years old. I'm a knife person."

Butter, she says, is the secret ingredient of any cooking, especially French cuisine. She's liberal with salt too, and says it's crucial to a dish.

The cheese souffles we eventually devour take her back to being a young girl when her mother used to make them. They're puffing up in the oven, while Crabb is turning chopped apples we helped peel for the tarte tartin in the frypan, which are taking a while to caramelise.

She hacks the fish with a knife, throwing it all into a pot, which will eventually emerge as soupe de poisson. Amazing flavours waft through the kitchen. The tarte tartin is in the oven, pastry rising and falling into cracks over the chopped apple like a moonscape.

The kitchen is busy and Crabb dashes from one dish, one stovetop and oven, to the next. We all get up and help turn the souffles out of their dishes on to a plate.

The food processor on the bench is whirring around, paprika turning the rouille mixture an apricot-pink colour in the stainless steel bowl. Crabb pours oil and lemon juice from an enamel jug into the rouille sauce.

"And it's about now that you realise that cooking really is manual labour," she says, as we all take turns to whisk the mayonnaise with a hand mixer, arms aching.

Afterwards, we all sit down to a long leisurely lunch and devour our French feast.

In her book, she writes: "You have to be both romantic and realistic to have careers doing the things you love - cooking, painting - and to manage homes in two beautiful countries. New Zealand is reality, France is romance. We wouldn't, couldn't, these days have one without the other."

Crabb's next plan is to move out of Martinborough township to a more rural spot, to raise goats so she can make cheese. "Cheese making is not something I've done before, but then I'd never done cooking classes before, either. I reckon if French peasants can make cheese, I can make it . . . I'm not scared of trying new things."

After spending a day with Crabb, I'm looking forward to trying her cheese.


My earliest food memory . . . My grandmother's sponge cake, filled with lemon curd and cream – I found out later she bought the sponge but it was absolutely delicious and I thought she was just so clever.

My go-to ingredients . . . Goat cheese. Adds sparkle to salads, pizzas, nibbles, everything. Also, wine, proper stock ... and plenty of butter.

What I love most about my job . . . The people – during the week the Palliser people are fun (and will eat anything), and in the weekend classes, they're what makes the day. Often hilarious, sometimes studious, always interesting, no two classes are the same. Food shared always tastes better, and food which you've helped to make tastes the best.

My culinary tips . . . Have a written plan (and follow it) – and take food seriously – and, amazingly, the food will turn out better.

The Dominion Post